The hands of a priest
I’ve been privileged to preach at a priest’s first Mass. I thought I’d need to celebrate my silver or even my golden jubilee of priesthood before having that honour accorded me.
This is the homily I delivered at Fr Joel Peart’s first Mass. We started in the seminary together (back in 2005), and it was through Joel that I became acquainted with Fr Des Byrne, who loved Joel like a son I think.
(All photos are owned by John Casamento.)
Homily for Fr Joel Peart’s first Mass
Traditionally, a young priest will ask a priestly mentor – a spiritual father – to preach at his first Mass. In Fr Joel’s case, that man is undoubtedly Fr Des Byrne. But sadly, Fr Byrne died last year.
Fr Des Byrne was a great priest. A heroic priest. Many of the priests in this sanctuary – Fr Joel among them – were also in the sanctuary at Fr Byrne’s funeral. And from that vantage, with a view of the packed nave, we noticed something striking.
For a man of 88 years, who had retired from parish ministry 14 years earlier, the congregation at Fr Byrne’s funeral was remarkably young. There were so many young adults in their 20s and 30s and early 40s, and many brought with them children of pre-school and primary school age.
Most of those children did not know Fr Byrne. He retired long before they were born. But their very existence is a testament to Fr Byrne’s spiritual fecundity.
In many cases, the parents of these children met each other at Fr Byrne’s parish, at meetings of the Confraternity of St Michael the Archangel. In every case, it is thanks to Fr Byrne’s labours that these parents know and love Catholic teaching on marriage and family. They have responded generously; they have defied the spirit of the age, and they’ve had large families.
It’s no exaggeration to state that a generation of Catholics in Melbourne owe their faith to Fr Des Byrne. And there is a next generation who indirectly owe their lives to Fr Byrne.
This is why we call priests “Father.” Fr Byrne had a great many spiritual children, and Joel Peart was one of them.
In the years since I was ordained, I would see Fr Byrne each month, and towards the end, he frequently expressed his desire to die. Not in a morbid and self-pitying way, but in a faithful and hopeful way. His energy was spent, and he desired to see the Master face to face. Besides, “My work here is done,” he’d tell us young priests, “and the priesthood is in good hands.” He’d point to us.
If he was here today, he would say that to Fr Joel in a particular way. In a unique way. He would say, with the confidence only a father has in his son, “the priesthood is in good hands.”
At his ordination, Fr Joel’s hands were anointed with sacred chrism. Since then, they have blessed many people, and they will bless many more following today’s Mass. At the conclusion of that blessing, some of you may be moved to kiss the palms of Fr Joel’s hands. It is a beautiful Catholic tradition to venerate the hands of a newly ordained priest.
For others, that’s a bit much. Some people dislike – and even avoid – kissing the cross on Good Friday. Kissing Fr Joel’s hands is more confronting still. So why do it? Because each one of us will receive many graces from his anointed hands.
- Some of you will have children who are baptised by those hands. Children who don’t even exist yet, but who are already known and loved by God.
- Some of you will have Fr Joel assist at your wedding. Your nuptial blessing will be ministered by his hands. (Fr Joel’s sister Tiffany will receive this grace next month!)
- It’s very likely that some of you here will receive your final sacraments from these hands. Fr Joel’s are the hands which will prepare your soul to meet God.
These are privileges which vary, according to our age and our proximity and our state of life. But there is one privilege that all of us – every person in this church today – will share in common.
We will witness these hands, for the first time, take up a piece of bread and change that bread into the sacred body of Christ. We will witness these hands, for the first time, grasp a chalice of wine and change that wine into the precious blood of Christ. This is the holiest and the greatest of the priest’s works.
It is because he consecrates the Body and Blood of Christ that Fr Joel can teach, govern and sanctify. He walks into the confessional from the foot of the altar. Every sick call, every act of spiritual direction, every classroom visit, every homily, flows from the altar. What a great privilege for us to see it start here, today, at this altar. And we are the beneficiaries.
Today’s Gospel is apposite: our Lord prophesies his passion and death. He is preparing for the way of the cross.
“Taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. But, turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter …”
Did you notice that detail? Our Lord rebukes Peter after he turns and sees his disciples. It was for his disciples – including you and me – that Jesus so willingly and insistently embraced the way of the cross. And it is precisely the same motivation which moves Fr Joel. The servant is not greater than his Master. In a moment Fr Joel will re-present the sacrifice of the cross, for you and me, the Lord’s disciples.
So why on earth wouldn’t we venerate his sacred hands?
I will conclude with a prayer. Let’s ask our Blessed Mother to pray for Fr Joel. I think our Lady has a special love for priests, who share a unique claim with her.
As of today, Fr Joel will daily hold the Sacred Body of Christ in his hands. Mary, too, held the body of Christ in her hands. In Fr Joel’s case it is sacramental; in our Lady’s case it was physical. She held her son with joy at Bethlehem; and she held his body with unspeakable sorrow at Calvary.
Today is a bit like Fr Joel’s Bethlehem. But his priesthood will lead him to Calvary also. So let’s pray that our Lady will make her presence known, and extend her maternal care, in his joys and in his sorrows.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death. Amen.